Gareth Edwards' Godzilla did something few recent films, especially epically budgeted summertime beasts, have managed to do...it surprised me. In this increasingly homogenized, made-by-committee-Hollywood-blockbuster-filmmaking-of-now culture, there's become a routine formula of what to expect to see on the screen. There's running climaxes, the expected strokes of the musical score and the typical beats of propulsion and exposition to keep it going and going and going, hopefully ending with enough of hook so that we will all return for more and more and more. And then return again for the eventual reboot (what a hideous word.) The machine keeps rolling, but this latest version of Godzilla, while totally within the franchise filmmaking game, plays almost at odds with the contemporary summer blockbuster structure-- it's almost anachronistic and plays as something not made by committee but by an imaginative, resourceful and singular artist looking to share a bustling and joyful artistic expression. That this such expression involves monster vs. monster attack scenes matter not at all.
It's rather amazing that Edwards got the gig at all, considering he has but one feature film to name-- the micro-budgeted (approximately $500,000) 2010 import Monsters, but he proves just the right director to be tasked with a $160 million property, infusing a gorgeously rendered, humanistic design to the monster bash. It would be silly to call his Godzilla a master stroke of artistry, but it sets a high water mark for the impending summer assault season. It would also be silly to invite cinematic comparisons, but for a film that adorns its influences proudly and mightily, perhaps not as reductive a call as typically. For this Godzilla of 2014, is in my eyes, the best summertime escapism since 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The comparison is apt, as both film reshaped and gathered from the dust of properties that long ago were disregarded by the pop cultural mass and surprised with an astonishingly visual ingenuity and uniquely sharpened sense of popcorn utopia. Both film evoked a child-like sense of wonder and wealth of imagination and glints of awe because they weaved surprising joy amidst all the bombast and (presumed) studio notes...plus they both pretty much (digitally) destroyed the tony city of San Francisco in the process. Yet, for even greater measure, Edwards cites and rests his Godzilla on the great Spielbergian treats of yore.
Fashioned as an homage by the biggest fanboy of Jurassic Park (certain shots and sequences are completely cribbed.) Yet there's more-- the quiet and purposeful distilling of tension, the elegant teasing and marking a truly absurd set of circumstance with a fantastical, even whimsical, color palette and a central focus of parents and children; yep, there's some daddy issues intertwined. There's further notes to the all-time summer spectacle master with evocative bits that remind of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds and Jaws-- the family at the center even shares the surname Brody. For all this movie name-checking, the film is kind of a blast, but with one significant flaw. The human characters of this iteration-- acted by a steady crop of actors including Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe-- aren't given nearly enough dimension. That doesn't (or shouldn't) matter when the beast is the true star, but Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein do make us spend so much time with them while the monster itself recedes in the back waiting for its close-up, over half-way through the feature. That may aggravate, or bore many, but there's plenty of glossy thematic material, eye candy and old-meets-new movie magic to keep this update freshly afloat.
While the gloss of Spielberg runs deep within Godzilla's mainframe, the deepest legacy lies elsewhere. Ishirô Honda (Watanabe's character, a scientist is even given the name Ichiro) introduced audiences to "The King of Monsters" sixty years ago with the first Godzilla (called Gojira.) Shrouded inside the wondrous man in a suit stomping through the streets of Tokyo saga was an unmissable political commentary of the terrors of nuclear warfare-- audiences in 1954 still had real life horrors of World War II firmly ingrained-- but the film, a magically, popcornical (that can be a word, right?) beast of a ride, still holds with a sense of grandeur and awe. And a beating heart. Edwards follows suit, beginning with a beautifully created title sequence that distills the horror and magnificence of its scope and never really holds back. Just as the events of Hiroshima informed the legend sixty years ago, the Fukushima disaster and global climate change remain constant elephants in the room, so are flints of new-age American-Japanese relations left in stage right. It's curious that just as the monster mayhem begins, the American military takes over.
The irony, one that Edwards runs through Godzilla, is that the scientific community, the military and all the regular schnooks in between have little say over the proceedings. Godzilla is the star and he, well, doesn't take cues from anything other than primal instant. And neither do the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organizations)-- the monster villains of the piece. Godzilla is presented as an animal, neither good nor bad, just Godzilla in all his 350 feet, CGI-created glory. The film starts with a prologue in 1999 (one year after the last big Hollywood Godzilla movie, the much loathed Roland Emmerich version-- that the film starts there is either by pure coincidence, or a subtle jab at the cinema nerds looking on with feverish delight) where Joe Brody (Cranston) and wife Sandra (Binoche) work at the fictitious Janjira, Japan nuclear power plant. Joe is obsessive from the start and sees (or really hears) something isn't right. Disaster strikes just as scientists Ichiro (Watanbe) and Graham (Hawkins) find something startling in the Philippines. The minutia isn't exactly necessary nor particularly important, but the early scenes twinge with the promise of something and Edwards exhibits a steady eye for the purposeful slow burn.
Fifteen years later, Joe and Sandra's only son Ford-- Ford Brody (just pause at that singular only-in-the-movies name for a second)-- played by Taylor-Johson (Kick-Ass.) He's a bomb specialist in the Navy, a young father and husband (Olsen plays his wife) living in San Francisco. On leave and happily at home for just a hot minute and he's called back to Japan because of his father has just been arrested for trespassing and suspicion. From the start, family is a recurring motif. Funnily, at first as Ford meets his father while a Japanese mother and father are on hand to deal with a young punked-out kid who was also detained. Throughout, the film highlights parents and children, incidentally and thankfully to a never heavy-handed degree, but it adds a grace note of humanity and poignancy to a film that could have coasted without it easily. There's even a trace of the theme in the monster story as well.
The reconciliation of the Brody boys is hardly cordial, as Joe is further bogged down the rabbit hole of paranoia (he's on to something-- nudge, nudge.) What's striking almost immediately about this retooled Godzilla doesn't lie within its multi-dimensional characterizations, but in the interest of the family, a theme expressed backwards and forwards but never in an overbearing facet. I wish the characters were more sharply drawn, especially in the front half of the film because so much time is spent with them, but the interest in humanity as a global community is apparent throughout and thoughtfully so and while the main actors are given but sketchily padded beats at best, neither could really be accused of phoning it in it.
That global community of sorts is a fascination throughout as the film builds and sharpens its ass-kicking muscles, sequences are framed from our points of view. The first major monster bout is but a tease and completed through a juxtaposition of a Headline News bit. Most films would play the light joke and get back to the action but Edwards keeps the film firmly grounded until he's ready, which might frustrate those used to the show-it-now, more-is-more standard, but seems to hit more notes by going this route. In this all-wired-up, 24/7 modern culture, don't we all view most global atrocities from the safety net of our television sets or computers screens anyway?
I have little interest in digging too deeply into plot, because, well a Godzilla movie is hardly Shakespeare. There's the requisite exposition (though cleverly distilled) and few rallies about the ignorance of man, but the joy, surprise and glory of Edwards' Godzilla is when the tease is up, when the rapturous "Let them fight" mantra not only gets spoken, but blazed across the screen. The film delights into a sort of maniacal popcorn profundity. The promise is realized and beautifully rendered. The visual effects are astounding as one would assume from a product like this but more so the camera shots bristle with color, ignite the senses with a ridiculous sense of euphoria. Oscar nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey previously worked on films like Atonement and Anna Karenina, and yet the parashooter jump that triggers the grand climax is one of the most strikingly shot and colorful sequences in recent memory (he also shot The Avengers, but here's real blockbuster vision.) The sound scheme is awe-inspiring and ovation worthy and Alexandre Desplat's orchestrations appropriately bombastic.
And so when the "King of the Monsters," rendered here more plump with a face sort of fashioned as an ornery canine, finally comes from under the surface and takes his close-up and yelps his iconic roar the moment fills with an instant iconography, a sudden and surprising jolt of pure popcorn glee that finally, after all these years, feels earned.